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Making a start on wildlife

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THERE is little specific mention of badgers or bovine TB in the Wildlife Health Strategy that was published by Defra last week,* although to be fair there is very little discussion of any other particular species or diseases either. Instead, the strategy document sets out a general approach to tackling the impacts of wildlife diseases in England, discussing basic principles and the various resources available. Defra hasn’t really had an overarching strategy on wildlife before so this in itself is useful. Nevertheless, it is a pity that the document does not include detailed discussion of a few specific examples. This would have helped to highlight the relevance of the strategy, and give a clearer idea of how it might be applied in practice.

That a strategy is needed is beyond doubt. As Defra points out, wildlife species are recognised as being important in the emergence, transmission and maintenance of infectious diseases. It notes that 77 per cent of livestock pathogens are shared with wildlife, and that 44 per cent of zoonotic pathogens have a wildlife reservoir. Globally, many new, emerging or re-emerging diseases have involved wildlife species, including SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease and West Nile fever. In addition, as in the case of bovine TB, wildlife can act as reservoirs of diseases that can impact on international trade and national and local economies. The ways in which diseases can circulate among wildlife and domestic species, livestock and humans are many and varied, as illustrated, perhaps, by two letters in last week’s Veterinary Record, one discussing bovine TB in Eurasian otters, the other considering the zoonotic tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis (VR, June 20, 2009, vol 164, pp 789-790). Once established, diseases can be hard to eradicate from wildlife, and the situation may be complicated by the fact that efforts to control them can conflict with conservation concerns. Some diseases also pose a threat to wildlife populations themselves. For all these and other reasons, it is important to have a clear strategy in place.

The strategy is linked to the Animal Health Strategy published in 2004, and the Veterinary Surveillance Strategy of 2003, and builds on a number of familiar themes. It notes that wildlife health involves a wide range of organisations and a complex network of roles and responsibilities and, with this in mind, seeks to provide a framework to ‘help guide all those with an interest in wildlife health to respond in a coordinated, appropriate and proportionate way to wildlife disease issues when they arise’, working in partnership and making best use of available resources and sources of information. It explains how priorities for wildlife health will be set and the circumstances in which the Government might take action, while making the point that government intervention in wildlife diseases should be rare. It places welcome emphasis on the importance of surveillance, and sets out a four-stage approach for dealing with wildlife issues, involving detection and identification of threats; assessment of threats; prioritisation and policy development; and possible mitigation measures. In the words of the Chief Veterinary Officer, the overall aim is ‘to increase our knowledge and understanding of wildlife disease generally – both infectious and non-infectious disease – by working together to continue to build our evidence base, share intelligence and monitor wildlife populations’.

The strategy is for England only, although the point is made in the document that there will be close liaison with Scotland and Wales. This will be important. Wildlife has no great respect for country boundaries, and, as is being demonstrated in the case of bovine TB, tensions can arise if policies diverge.

For all the effort that has apparently gone into it, the strategy document is not always clear and concise and at times seems a little vague. This may partly reflect the complexity of the subject and the conflicting nature of some of the issues. It may also reflect the novelty of the exercise. However, the document gives no indication of what financial support might be available to implement the strategy or whether more support might be available in the future. It usefully lists various ‘key actions’, including setting up a National Wildlife Disease Surveillance Partnership to provide a single reference source for wildlife issues across Great Britain, and the development of disease profiles and tools to help decision making. However, while it says progress will be reviewed and reported on in three years time, it does not commit itself to a specific timescale for implementation.

The strategy is welcome, but it needs be taken forward. Its launch needs to be seen as the beginning of a process, rather than an end.

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